Canucks fan favourite Gino Odjick remembered for his mentorship of Indigenous youth

Canucks fan favourite Gino Odjick remembered for his mentorship of Indigenous youth

Every time Gino Odjick and his close friend Peter Leech would visit an Indigenous community, the pair always felt the trip was cathartic.

“We always looked at the work we did within the communities as medicine for us,” said Leech, a member of the St’at’imc Tribal Nation who was friends with Odjick for nearly 30 years.

“It helped us mentally, emotionally, spiritually,” he said.

Odjick was widely known for his role as an enforcer on the ice but spent much of his life mentoring Indigenous youth in communities across the country to set goals and chase their dreams — whether on the ice or in a classroom.

Odjick and Leech would visit about three to four communities per month and hosted workshops. Leech says, at first, they were sports-related but, over the years, would broaden in scope, focusing on personal growth in all areas.

A woman cheers and holds a sign as hundreds of fans gather in support of Vancouver Canucks’ enforcer Gino Odjick outside of VGH on June 29, 2014. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

“We always stuck with education, education, education,” said Leech of their messages to youth. “When you have an education, you have the freedom to make choices.”

There were days when the pair would see just what kind of difference they made.

“A young lady we met at 13 years old. She wanted to thank us. She came up and thanked both of us personally. She said we influenced her to become a lawyer. She was 24 when we saw her again,” said Leech.

Odjick runs through Merritt, B.C., in the summer of 1995 during his Journey of Healing, a commitment to help Indigenous youth that would last until the end of his life. (CBC News)

Spiritual journey of healing

In 1995, Odjick embarked on his Journey of Healing between Calgary and Vancouver, stopping at 14 communities along the way to raise awareness about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

Chief Jen Thomas of the Tsliel-Waututh First Nation helped organize the tour, recalling Odjick’s insistence that they fit in as many stops as possible.

“It was a lot of hard work, but we pulled it off in a really short time,” said Thomas.

“He was greeted by all ages of people,” said Thomas. “From little ones to all the way up to elders. It really meant a lot to those First Nations communities that he was making an effort to show up.”

“It really showed that everyone was important to him.”

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Indigenous hockey

Odjick’s visits spanned the country.

Stephane Friday, co-founder and CEO of the non-profit Hockey Indigenous, still remembers the day Odjick visited his Kashechewan First Nation, north of Timmins, Ont. He was six years old at the time.

“It was pretty astonishing,” he said. “I remember I was very nervous. He was big. He was tall … it was an amazing experience.”

Friday, whose community was about 600 kilometres from where Odjick grew up, calls him a trailblazer for youth in the area who were inspired to see someone from the region find success in the NHL.

“His style of play was pretty unique,” said Friday. “That gave a different mentality to our youth that’s like, OK, some youth might know they’re not a goal scorer, but they know they can still make it to the NHL in that kind of style.”

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